One day in 2003, Naaman Hinton woke up with double vision.
He ignored it for two or three days. He was a young man then, just 23 years old, and the former basketball star at Steilacoom High School and soccer player said he’d never been sick. When he did go to the doctor, who took pictures of his brain, Hinton received a double dose of bad news.
There was a tumor the size of a pingpong ball in his brain, the doctor said. The MRI also showed that he had multiple sclerosis.
He underwent surgery 1 1/2 weeks later to remove the benign tumor. In the ensuing years, the MS progressed until it forced Hinton to use a cane and then a walker. Now, the high school athlete who once could charge down a basketball court and slam dunk a ball is in a wheelchair.
But his story doesn’t end with MS so much as it begins anew.
“Every day I open my eyes, I want to be an inspiration to society. There’s over seven billion people on this planet and not one of us has a life that’s too easy,” the 35-year-old Hinton said, adding that MS wasn’t going to rob him of his joy.
“I refuse to let this wheelchair define me. I’m going to let my smile define me,” said Hinton, who has lived in Bellingham for a decade.
He’ll be among the estimated 400 people expected to take part Saturday, April 9, in Walk MS Bellingham, an annual fundraiser to support the fight against multiple sclerosis and to provide services to those living with the disease.
“Naaman is just one of those people that lights up the room. He’s consistently smiling and engaging with everyone around him,” said Molly Johnston, site lead for Walk MS Bellingham. “No matter the struggles he’s dealing with that day or what might be going on behind the scenes, he’s positive and optimistic and he wants everyone around him to be the same.”
Multiple sclerosis is a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the protective covering around the nerves of the central nervous system, which is the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves.
It disrupts the flow of information within the brain, as well as the signals sent between the brain and the body. Symptoms, which can be mild to severe, include difficulty with walking or swallowing, and numbness in the arms or legs, as well as vision loss.
It’s one of the easiest things to do in this world is give up. I refuse to give up. I just want to encourage everyone I encounter to never give up.
Naaman Hinton, Bellingham man with multiple sclerosis
There is no cure, although medication can slow its progression.
Hinton’s story helps the community learn about the disease, organizers said, and lets others with MS know they’re not alone.
“Just as each person is affected differently by MS, each person living with MS has a unique story to share about their experience. MS is an extremely unpredictable disease and many symptoms are ‘invisible’ to others,” said Sarah Sweeney, spokeswoman for the Greater Northwest Chapter of the National MS Society.
“By sharing the stories of the MS community we raise awareness of the disease, inspire those in our local communities to get involved, and let people affected by MS know there is a network of support available for them and their families,” Sweeney said.
About the man
Hinton, who can no longer work, talked about his life one recent day after school while near the playground at Columbia Elementary School where his two nieces attend. It’s where he’d like to start volunteering as soon as he gets the OK from the Bellingham school.
It wouldn’t be the first such stint for him. Hinton said he has volunteered at preschools and at Sunnyland and Geneva elementary schools, doing whatever the teachers tell him to do and fielding questions from children about why he’s in a wheelchair.
He had to take a break after getting chemotherapy in October in the hope that it would keep his MS from worsening. But he plans to return to schools in the coming days.
He’s also volunteered at camps for children who have been burned and for children in bereavement.
Hinton — who wears a green T-shirt that reads “Inspire, Empower” one day and one that reads “Think outside the box” on another day — gives strength and encouragement to children, he said, and he gets that from them in return.
“I feel tremendously blessed with a positive attitude that I have. I feel so strongly that I have a joyful responsibility to help people. It’s one of the easiest things to do in this world is give up. I refuse to give up,” Hinton said. “I just want to encourage everyone I encounter to never give up.”
On another day, Hinton sat in his Bellingham home as his mother talked about her son’s life with MS.
“It made love come out in him that I don’t think he ever recognized in himself,” Linda Hinton said. “He became this person who is determined to see the cup half full.”
There was a notebook with pages from his next spoken word poetry, which he has created to encourage others. (You can find his performance by searching for his name on YouTube.)
Hanging in the hallway is a photo of him leaping above other players, arm outstretched for a basketball. In his room nearby, the walls are decorated with awards from high school, pictures of him smiling with others, and notes thanking him for his kindness and encouragement, including from kids at Camp Willie, a grief camp.
“MS can’t take that away,” he said, waving at the walls. “MS can’t take any of this away.”
If you go
What: Walk MS Bellingham, an annual fundraiser for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Greater Northwest Chapter. The money that’s raised supports the fight against multiple sclerosis by paying for research and provides services to those living with the disease.
When: Saturday, April 9. Day-of registration begins at 9 a.m. with the walk starting at 10 a.m.